This Amazonian Indigenous Group Has Lessons in Sustainable Living for All of Us
Last July a premonition persuaded the Ashaninka Indigenous people of the western Amazon basin to undertake a great traditional expedition. Divining that this could be their last chance to enjoy peace and tranquility, more than 200 Ashaninka from the Sawawo and Apiwtxa villages alongside the Amônia River in Peru and Brazil, respectively, boated upstream to pristine headwaters deep in the forest. It was the dry season, when the river waters were clear and safe for the children to splash in and the night sky starry for the spirit to soar in. There, in the manner of their ancestors, the Ashaninka spent a week camping, hunting, fishing, sharing stories, and imbibing all the joy, beauty and serenity they could.
A month later the Ashaninka got the news they had been dreading—a road-building project they’d heard about months earlier was moving forward. Logging companies had moved heavy equipment from mainland Peru to a village at the Amazon forest’s edge to cut an illegal road through to the Amônia. Once the road reached the river, loggers would use the waterway to penetrate the rain forest and fell mahogany, cedar and other trees. The birds and animals the workers didn’t shoot for food would be scared away by the screech of chain saws. Indigenous peoples would face lethal danger both from violent encounters with the newcomers as well as from casual interactions, which would spread germs to which forest peoples often have little immunity. Drug traffickers would clear swaths of forest, establish coca plantations and try to recruit local youths as drug couriers. The road would bring, in a word, devastation.
This borderland between Brazil and Peru, where the lowland Amazon rain forest slopes gently toward the Andes foothills, is rich with biological and cultural diversity. It is home to the jaguar (Panthera onca) and the woolly monkey (genus Lagothrix), as well as to several Indigenous groups. Its protected landscapes include two national parks, two reserves for Indigenous people in voluntary isolation and more than 26 Indigenous territories. The nearest large town, Pucallpa in Peru, is more than 200 kilometers away over dense forest as the macaw flies and is almost unreachable; the tiny town of Marechal Thaumaturgo on the Amônia River in Brazil can, however, be accessed by chartered flight from Cruzeiro do Sul, the second-largest city in Acre state, and is a three-hour boat ride downstream of Apiwtxa.
Remote as it is, the region has been threatened for centuries by colonizers who sought its riches. In response, the Ashaninka joined Indigenous alliances to fight off the invaders or fled into ever deeper forests to escape them. In the 1980s, however, technological advances made it far quicker and easier for outsiders to cut through the jungle for logging, ranching, industrial agriculture, and drug production and trafficking.
The Apiwtxa Ashaninka adapted, responding to the intensified assaults with increasingly sophisticated and multifaceted resistance tactics, which included seeking allies from both Indigenous and mainstream society. Most significantly, they devised a strategy for the community’s long-term survival. The Apiwtxa designed and achieved a sustainable, enjoyable and largely self-sufficient way of life, maintained and protected by cultural empowerment, Indigenous spirituality and resistance to invasions from the outside world. “We live in the Amazon,” said Apiwtxa chief Antônio Piyãko at the July gathering. “If we do not look after it, it will vanish. We have the right to keep looking after this land and prevent it from being invaded and destroyed by people who do not belong here.”
The Apiwtxa, along with members of regional nongovernmental organizations, had been working with the Sawawo people, first in the line of invasion, to prepare to resist the loggers. When they learned that the loggers had finally arrived, members of Sawawo’s vigilance committee traveled up the Amônia in their boats. Two and a half hours later they came upon two tractors. Laden with people, food, fuel and equipment for founding a logging base, the vehicles had crossed the river into Ashaninka territory in Peru. The defenders took pictures of the destruction, interviewed the loggers and returned to their village, where they had Internet access. They reported the intrusion to Peruvian authorities through a local Indigenous organization, asking that an environment official visit to survey the damage. They also shared the evidence with the Apiwtxa and other allies and set up camp at the invasion spot, waiting for reinforcements.
Apiwtxa members showed up soon after, by boat, and nine days later supporters from three regional NGOs arrived on foot. That evening they saw two more tractors coming with supplies. More than 20 people, led by a woman carrying her baby, swiftly placed themselves in front of the tractors, preventing the loggers from crossing the Amônia. The Ashaninka, who have a reputation of being fierce warriors, promptly confiscated the keys from the stunned drivers.
The official arrived the next day. He cursorily scanned the environmental damage and demanded the tractor keys, which the Ashaninka handed over. Sawawo’s people nonetheless maintained a presence in the camp for months to make sure that the tractors were not used for a fresh assault on the region, and the NGO allies alerted the press to the intrusion.
Eventually the logging companies left the territory. Determined but nonviolent Indigenous resistance, coupled with pressure from global media, had temporarily unnerved them. In November 2021, however, when Apiwtxa village was hosting a gathering of local Indigenous groups to discuss the increasing threats posed by loggers and drug traffickers, the Peruvian government authorized the tractors’ retrieval. One of the companies has since resumed its efforts to enter the region, using a tried-and-true tactic—divide and conquer—seeking to convince individual Indigenous leaders to sign logging contracts with them. The struggle the Ashaninka have been waging for decades continues.
Contemporary, Not Modern
Since 1992, when a community of Ashaninka people obtained legal title to some 870 square kilometers of partially degraded forest along the Amônia River, they have achieved an astonishing transformation. Once a people undergoing flight, fight or subjugation ever since European missionaries and colonizers arrived in their homeland three centuries ago, the 1,000-odd residents of Apiwtxa village in the Kampa do Rio Amônia Indigenous Land have become an autonomous, self-assured and largely self-sufficient community. They have regenerated the forest, which had been damaged by logging and cattle ranching, restored endangered species, enhanced food security through hunting, gathering, agroforestry and shifting cultivation, and otherwise shaped a way of life they hope will ensure the continuation of their community and principles. These achievements, as well as their support for neighboring communities, have earned them several awards, including the United Nation’s Equator Prize in 2017.
The Apiwtxa designs for living, drawn from shamanic visions and informed by interactions with the non-Indigenous world, are predicated on the protection and nurturing of all life in their territory. The Ashaninka hold that their well-being depends on the maintenance of the Amazon’s incredible biodiversity. This awareness comes largely from their intimate relationships with the plants, animals, celestial bodies and other elements of their landscape, which they regard as their close relatives. These beings, especially the plant ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi), which the Ashaninka call kamarãpi, help treat their diseases and guide their decisions through visions. “Our life is an enchantment,” shaman Moisés Piyãko said to me in July 2015. “What we live in Apiwtxa is all lived beforehand in the world of kamarãpi.”
As architects of their future rather than passive victims of circumstance, the Apiwtxa are living a concept outlined by development scholar Arturo Escobar in Designs for the Pluriverse (2018). Extending design theory into the cultural and political realm, Escobar described social design as a means by which traditional and Indigenous peoples engender innovative solutions to contemporary challenges. In his view, moments of social breakdown, when “the habitual mode of being in the world is interrupted,” are important for new ways of living to emerge. Securing a territory, a safe space for the design to flourish, is essential, Escobar adds. Through the struggle to safeguard their land, the Apiwtxa have realized this ideal: the community has fought against social and ecological disintegration to take control of its own fate and that of the creatures they live with and depend on.
I first arrived in Apiwtxa village in 2015 to conduct research for a doctoral degree in anthropology. Getting there required four sets of clearances—from my university, two Brazilian agencies and the Apiwtxa themselves—a commercial flight to Cruzeiro do Sul, a chartered flight to Marechal Thaumaturgo and then a three-hour boat ride. Within days of arrival, I realized that it was no easy task to study the Ashaninka. A centuries-long history of dispossession and exploitation by non-Indigenous people has made them wary of outsiders. It was only after some months of their observing me that I was allowed to stay. My willingness to collaborate with their projects, my empathy with their principles, and my deep respect for their courage and wisdom all guided their decision. I ended up living and working with the Ashaninka for two and a half years. It was a transformative experience.
I had worked with various Indigenous groups since the early 2000s, as a researcher, consultant on the environmental impact of development projects, and later as an employee with FUNAI, Brazil’s National Foundation for Indigenous Affairs. I was well aware of the devastation that the Global North’s hunger for oil, minerals, timber and other resources wreaked on forest peoples. I found the Ashaninka remarkable, however, for their penetrating analysis of the assaults they faced, as well as the farsightedness with which they devised responses to them. They were not “modern,” in that they did not seek a state of development modeled on a Western ideal of progress and growth that many aspire to but only few can reach. Instead they were exceptionally “contemporary,” in the sense of finding their own solutions to present-day problems. As philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist Bruno Latour commented, “Knowing how to become a contemporary, that is, of one’s own time, is the most difficult thing there is.” And I was awed and inspired by the Apiwtxa Ashaninka’s ingenuity and resilience.
The Apiwtxa constructed the new village by the Amônia River, on two former cattle pastures of around 40 hectares. They reforested the area, mostly with indigenous species, which they nurtured in nurseries. They built the huts in the traditional manner—close to the river, on raised platforms to keep out snakes, and mostly without walls to let in the breeze. Around their homes they planted fruit, palm and timber trees, and medicinal plants. They established banana groves and multicropped fields with corn, manioc and cotton, dug ponds to breed fish and turtles to replenish the fishing resources in the Amônia River, and set up no-go areas, which shifted periodically, to prevent overhunting. And they established a school of their own design, teaching children in the Ashaninka language for the first four years and imparting both traditional skills such as weaving and mainstream knowledge such as arithmetic. A few of the young people went away to attend university and study the outside world—in particular, its economic and political systems—before returning with their skills to the Apiwtxa.
At Apiwtxa, the day revolves around living—bathing in the river, washing clothes, tending crops, fishing, cooking, repairing huts and implements, playing. By the time it draws to a close, everyone is tired. The villagers eat dinner just before sunset, after which the children might enjoy a storytelling session before going to bed. Some of the women spin cotton; the spiritual leaders, mostly men, sit under starry skies to chew coca leaves in silent communion. Among the Ashaninka, a great deal of communication happens without speech, through subtle shifts in expression and posture. We would go to sleep by 7 or 8 P.M., waking up early to birdsong and other forest sounds, feeling deeply rested.
The regulations that the Apiwtxa decided on in the 1990s have since developed into a complex system of governance. The community’s leaders, several of whom are Samuel’s close relatives, comprise shamans, warriors and hunters who deal with internal issues, alongside people with formal education or experience in building social movements, who serve as interlocutors with the outside world. With such a diversity of skills, the Apiwtxa have also become adept at raising funds from governmental and nongovernmental agencies for projects, such as reforestation.
A second key principle of Ashaninka design is autonomy—independence from systems of oppression and the freedom to determine how to live in their territory. “Not be led by others” is essential, Francisco declared. Autonomy requires a large measure of self-sufficiency, to which end the Apiwtxa have enhanced their food sovereignty and implemented economic and trading practices that minimally impact the environment. The ancient ayõpare system of exchange, which goes beyond material exchanges to the creation and nurturing of relationships of mutual support and respect, guides all transactions within and without the community. I experienced it while living there: someone might ask me for, say, batteries, and a few days or months later I would find a bunch of fruit or some other gift on my doorstep.
Apiwtxa’s shamans even attribute their capacity to design their society to kamarãpi visions. Moisés, Benki and other shamans actively seek guidance from ayahuasca, with whose help they attain, sustain and explore an altered state of consciousness that enables them to envision the future and find solutions to challenges. Dreams are known to be conducive to problem-solving; they enable disparate concepts to link up in ways not normally available to the rational mind. Shamans in Ashaninka and other Indigenous cultures deliberately attain such states of consciousness as a means of seeking foresight and wisdom.
Dreaming is essential but not enough, Benki adds. It is also essential to plan—to think consciously and rationally—and act in the present. When a shaman reports a significant vision, the community discusses it and develops a plan of action. After Benki dreamed about a center for disseminating forest peoples’ philosophy—a place that would be rooted in ancestral knowledge while reaching out to the world with a message of caring for all beings—the Apiwtxa acted on it, founding the Yorenka Atame (Knowledge of the Forest) Center in 2007.
They constructed the building on a cattle pasture across the river from Marechal Thaumaturgo, a small town three hours downstream of Apiwtxa. Its creators intended Yorenka Atame as a demonstration to the townspeople of an alternative way of living and turned the pasture into a forest full of fruit trees. Earlier, while serving as environment secretary for the town, Benki had sought to lead its youth away from drug trafficking by training them in agroforestry and inviting them to kamarãpi ceremonies. Using ayahuasca is risky: its impact depends crucially on the brew and the skill and ethics of the person supervising the session. Benki hoped that with his guidance, the ritual would help the young people feel connected to nature—and it did. They helped him plant around Yorenka Atame and went on to establish a settlement called Raio do Sol, or Sunshine, where they grow their own food using agroecology.
Yorenka Atame is a place for exchanging knowledge about the forest and discussing what true development might mean. It has hosted many gatherings of Indigenous peoples and scholars from around the world. “We do not have enemies; we have partners and allies and the ones with whom we disagree,” Francisco said—the Apiwtxa wish to engage everyone in dialogue. Exchanges at Yorenka Atame and in the field have helped local rubber tappers to reforest their region and stimulated the cultural revitalization of many Indigenous groups, such as the Puyanawa peoples, who had been enslaved and almost killed off by rubber barons.
Such activities have given the Apiwtxa community a huge presence and influence in the region despite its small size. Isaak Piyãko, another of Antônio and Piti’s sons, became the first Indigenous mayor of Marechal Thaumaturgo in 2016. That he is among the leaders of the Apiwtxa, a community whose achievements are widely respected, probably helped his election.
In 2017 Benki and others established a related project, Yorenka Tasori (Knowledge of the Creator), with its own center. It facilitates the diffusion of Indigenous spiritual and medicinal knowledge among forest peoples and beyond. Yorenka Tasori also includes an effort to protect Ashaninka sacred sites, which are often places of great natural beauty but are threatened by roads, dams and extractive industries. As much a political as a spiritual endeavor, Yorenka Tasori seeks to revitalize traditional links among the Ashaninka as a way of restoring their historically powerful cohesiveness. In such manner—by protecting their ancestral knowledge, especially the awareness of interconnectedness with all other beings, and passing these gifts on to younger generations—the Apiwtxa hope to ensure the Ashaninka’s continuity as a people.
I accompanied Benki and other Apiwtxa representatives on visits to Ashaninka sacred sites in Peru and was struck by how people were drawn to them. They had an aura of serenity and power that attracted many others, so that our group grew inexorably as we traveled. The Apiwtxa leaders inspired hope wherever they went, to the extent that the chief of one Indigenous community said, “It must have been Pawa who sent you here to open our eyes.”
The Apiwtxa hope to open our eyes as well—to reach out to us with their message of unity and interrelatedness of all beings. They believe that a spiritual awareness of the underlying unity of creatures shows a way out of our epoch, marked as it is by ecological and societal crises—a time that is increasingly referred to as the Anthropocene. This geologic era derives from the relentless expansion of humankind’s destructive activities on Earth, impacting the atmosphere, oceans and wildlife to the point that they threaten the integrity of the biosphere. The anthropos least responsible for the Anthropocene—people inhabiting the land in traditional ways—are suffering its worst consequences, however, in damage to their environments, livelihoods and lives.
The Apiwtxa propose in place of permanent economic growth and extractive industry a social and economic system in which collaboration ranks above competition and where every being has a place and is important to the whole. By looking after human and other-than-human beings and cultivating diversity through protecting, restoring and enriching life, they are pointing to a pathway out of the Anthropocene.
“This message comes from Earth, as a request for humanity to understand that we are transient beings here and one cannot just look at one’s own well-being,” said Benki in an appeal to the world in 2017. “We have to look toward future generations and what we will leave for them. We have to think of our children and of Earth. We cannot leave the land impoverished and poisoned, as is happening now. Today we can already see great disasters beginning to happen, people emigrating out of their countries in search of water to drink and food to eat. We see a war going on for wealth now, and soon we will see a war for water and for food.
“Shall we wait, or shall we change history? Join us!”